By Sarah Seltzer
Friday, April 4, 2008
Jane Austen's literary weight is undercut by "bosom-and-bonnet" film adaptations, say literary scholars. But "Janeites" say that's OK. Whenever their beloved writer is slighted it just means more literary-defense work for them.
(WOMENSENEWS)--"Sense and Sensibility," which concludes this Sunday, is capping off a series of new Jane Austen adaptations on PBS, mostly featuring heroines in low-cut bodices falling desperately in love and often distressed about it.
While adding to Austen's fame, the series also seems to have stoked the image of the Regency England author as a chronicler of passionate romance and sugary patron saint of chick flicks.
"Hyacinth and amethyst adorned the landscape of her heart, betrothed to fragrant oakmoss," began the Austen section in a February parody of famous authors by McSweeney's, an online humor magazine.
While Shane Ryan, the parody's writer convincingly aped the styles of Cormac McCarthy and James Joyce, his Austen was off base. Instead of Austen's spare style, his parody seemed to be responding to the costume-drama flavor of Austen film posters.
There is a problem with this flowery woman, say Austen experts: She's not Jane.
The big misperception about Austen's writing "is that it's all about heaving bosoms and bonnets," says Margaret C. Sullivan, editor of an Austen log and author of "The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World."
Sullivan and other "Janeite" scholars say Austen was a wickedly satirical social commentator whose main preoccupation was the vulnerability of women in a society where--as the opening scenes of "Sense and Sensibility" emphasize--property can only be inherited by a male.
Her six novels, the most famous of which is "Pride and Prejudice," show how women in pursuit of stability and happiness must navigate strict social rules to reach the main route open to them: marriage.
Carol Pippen, a professor of English at Goucher College and editor of the Jane Austen Society of North America newsletter, says Austen's novels carry an undercurrent of danger. "It was a matter of survival," she says. "You couldn't just go out and get a job or have an apartment if you didn't marry. There were a lot of prostitutes and homeless women in England. There were more women on the street at that time than there were married."
To the extent that women faced strict either-or alternatives between marriage and other options, Austen bore them out in her own life. Had the "spinster" of what turned out to be literary classics--versus the wool produced by so many unmarried women of the time--married, her fulfillment of family duties would have likely stymied her narrative impulse.
Historical conditions are also present, subtly, in her books. "People tend to forget things like the fact that England was at war," says Lynn Festa, a professor of English at Rutgers who specializes in the 18th century and has taught classes on Austen. "To see it as a Harlequin romance is repressing the historical reality." The soldiers and sailors who come and go in "Pride and Prejudice" and "Persuasion" are evidence not just of eligible bachelors but the historically turbulent period of the Napoleonic wars.
Festa says Austen made a major contribution to the rise of the novel as an art form with her perfection of free indirect discourse, a writing style in which the narrator seamlessly enters the thoughts of characters.
But despite Austen's pivotal place in English literature, her reputation is often skewed by gender, says Festa who once had 80 Harvard undergrads show up for a seminar on Austen. Only two were men.
"There's an idea that it's un-manly to read Jane Austen novels," says Jessica Emerson, who authors the blog Austen-tatious. "I don't know how we would go about trying to fix it."
Sullivan describes a conversation she once had at a cafe with strangers. One was a woman who loved "Pride and Prejudice." Her male co-worker dismissed it by saying, "That's a girl's book!"
Janeites note that Shakespeare plays about kings are not considered "men's literature," but literature of the human condition. They say Austen's insight on families, class and balancing happiness with social demands are also universal subjects.
"Any marginalization that's inherent is because she's female. She's always going to have that," says Pippen, who notes that female authors are still locked in a posthumous battle for entry into what universities define as the canon of Western literature. In survey courses starting with Homer and ending with James Joyce, Pippen says Austen is often the lone female writer, although she might be exchanged for George Eliot or one of the Bronte sisters.
One place Austen may get a more diverse audience is online, where plenty of male Janeites can be found, says Austenblog's Sullivan. "On the Internet, you meet people with whom the one thing you have in common is Jane Austen," she says. "She appeals to everyone, conservative to liberal, atheists to those who are very into their religion."
Many Janeites say the most recent Austen boom--beginning in August with "Becoming Jane," a fictional biopic released by Miramax starring Anne Hathaway, and ending with the PBS series just ended--have emphasized love affairs at the expense of Austen's other story elements.
They take particular exception to "Becoming Jane," which some Janeites felt linked Austen's genius too closely to a passionate love affair, and let some of her most famous lines be spoken by others. In a guest post on Austenblog Diana Birchall, author of a sequel to "Pride and Prejudice" among other books, lamented the "conceptual shakiness of a theme that indicates disappointment in love was the catalyst that made Jane Austen what she became."
The unmarried Austen "wasn't necessarily like her heroines," says Festa.
This winter's "Complete Jane Austen" series on PBS also attracted plenty of criticism. It featured three new adaptations ("Persuasion," "Northanger Abbey" and "Mansfield Park") clocking in at 90 minutes each, which Sullivan calls disgracefully short. "Sense and Sensibility," which was produced in two 90-minute installments with greater attention to period detail, received a more positive response from Janeites.
"By making such short films I think they dumbed it down," says Emerson.
Festa says one can see how closely filmmakers understand Austen by the extent to which they stray outside the marriage trajectory of the plot and include shots of servants, or references to foreign wars and economic troubles.
The Janeites interviewed for this story, however, all stressed that despite the defects in the recent adaptations they still love her popularity, watch all the films and benefit from the attention.
Organizations such as the Jane Austen Society of North America, Web sites such as Austenblog and university professors specializing in Austen gain an influx of visitors and inquiries every time a new adaptation appears.
Even if the adaptation isn't good, it gives Janeites a chance to go to work defending the depth and style of her work and urging potential readers to sample her books for themselves.
Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer in New York City.
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